CalMac ferries debacle shows SNP government has failed to grasp one benefit of Brexit – Brian Wilson

When a couple of new ferries eventually appear in west coast waters, the colours will be the familiar red and black of Caledonian MacBrayne. Saltires will doubtless flutter from every port hole.

Two new CalMac ferries will not be built in Scotland, the CMAL vessel procurement body has said, even though the Scottish government owns a shipyard (Picture: John Devlin )

Unfortunately, the vessels will have been built in Turkey, Poland or Romania. A Scottish yard is now incapable of even being short-listed to build them. This is disappointing in itself but behind it lies an even more depressing story.

Ask any Scottish government minister what their strategy is for shipbuilding and the marine engineering industries and you would be met with a blank stare. Why on Earth would they have one? Well, there is a £1 billion taxpayer-funded industry on offer and, on current form, it will entirely pass Scotland by.

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This could be about the regeneration of post-industrial communities. It could be about creating skilled well-paid jobs. Instead, it is the familiar story that if someone can do it cheaper in Turkey, good luck to them and it is none of the Scottish government’s business, regardless of the fact public money is paying for it. For ferries, read also renewables.

Public procurement of vessels could, as the Scottish government has been told repeatedly, provide the key to a real industrial revival on the Clyde and elsewhere. But it needs a strategy. It needs to go beyond talking about Ferguson’s as if the troubles of a single yard are synonymous with the entire potential for an expanded industry.

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Two new CalMac ferries for isles will not be built in Scotland

Much of the future spend will be for CalMac but there are also other ferries, lighthouse vessels, fisheries protection and so on. Left to their own devices, each body will make its own decision and the work will disperse around Europe. That is what happens when there is no bigger picture. It is a repeated consequence of there being no Scottish industrial strategy, far less a sector-specific one.

Given CMAL’s role in the Ferguson’s debacle, it seems extraordinary they remain sole custodians of such politically sensitive procurement decisions. The very existence of this organisation is under scrutiny yet they are left to define priorities which will have implications for decades to come.

The Scottish government’s approach to industry is entirely reactive – a biscuit factory here, an airport there and, once upon a time, a struggling shipyard at Port Glasgow. What never seems to occur is that to build anything for the future, there also has to be follow-through and consistent leadership to turn challenge into opportunity.

At First Minister’s Questions, Nicola Sturgeon said: “There are hundreds of people working at Ferguson’s today who would not be working at Ferguson’s, because it would not still be operational had we not intervened in that way.”

That, as far as it goes, is true. However, the idea it exonerates her from responsibility for the hundreds of millions of pounds wasted thereafter or the reputational damage done is absurd. There was limited point in “saving Ferguson’s” if not even a CalMac ferry will ever be built in Scotland again.

For years, we were told that all sorts of things were held back by EU competition rules. One area in which this repeatedly arose was ferries. Indeed CMAL owes its existence to the dubious claim that the EU insisted on separating infrastructure from operations. I still doubt if the EU, as opposed to Scottish government civil servants, was greatly exercised.

However, five years have passed since the decision to leave the EU. I didn’t vote for it but neither was I blind to it creating opportunities as well as problems – one of which might well involve public procurement as the basis for reviving industries which had suffered from EU rules. Has a finger been lifted to explore the possibilities that this opened up?

Instead of these pointless advisory boards she keeps setting up, why doesn’t Ms Sturgeon get a group of people who know what they are talking about round a table and ask the specific question: “How can Scotland have a shipbuilding and maritime industry that extends beyond vessels for the Royal Navy?” The answers are available if there is the slightest interest in listening.

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